In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “you must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
On this Mothering Sunday I want us to think about birth and what we can learn about God from our human experiences. You see although our Bible is male dominated, right back at the beginning there is a very clear piece of teaching in Genesis that God created us in God's image as both male and female. In other words if we want to know what God is like it is insufficient to look just at men, and specifically those who are fathers, and declare that only they are in God’s image.
This of course throws us the question, if God is mother, why did Jesus call him Father? And why is God so masculine throughout scripture? I wish I had more time to deal with this, but there are perhaps a few pointers. Firstly God revealed Godself to Abram and Moses and many others in the midst of religions that were pantheistic.
The Canaanite pantheon included male and female deities. Initially the people of Israel saw Yahweh simply as being the god of their people rather than as being the only God. As protector of their nation he was perceived as a mighty warrior. There were also clashes of ideals with the feminine deity Asherah and so you could argue that Yahweh remained male in order to have some clear water between what the Hebrews believed and what the other local nations believed.
It’s only much later in their history that this idea of monotheism begins to be revealed to them and it is quite possible that the first chapter of Genesis was written in that later period. And in this passage we begin to find some startlingly feminine images. The description of the Spirit of God brooding over the waters would seem familiar to a pregnant mother sitting with her hand over her swelling belly, pondering what the future was going to hold for her unborn child.
It is this imagery that I want us to use to think about both the love of God for us, and the responsibilities we share. Thinking first of the love of God, if we consider that our feminine gender is also equally in God’s image, then I wonder whether some of the experiences of childbirth may give us a very gentle insight into the brooding nature of the Holy Spirit over the unformed creation in the moments before ‘Let there be light.’
I asked some of my friends if they would tell me what pregnancy cost them. One of them, Ruth, wrote something for me that I’d like to share with you. As a bit of background I trained with Ruth and remember her struggling with ill health which she met with an amazing determination. She married a few years ago and had a bit of a miracle in being able actually to conceive for the first time. Ruth is now in the last stages of her second miracle. She wrote this.
Not quite sure what you want- but given that I am writing this with a wriggling unborn babe leaping up and down on my bladder I guess I'm the sort of responder you want..... Today is the equivalent day in my pregnancy that her brother was born- very prematurely, and she herself is going to be born prematurely in 2 weeks time if not before, as my body doesn't seem to do too well at the later stages of pregnancy.
For me last time as a sudden shock, this time after weeks of trying desperately to hang on to a precarious pregnancy to give my baby a chance at survival, motherhood begins in fear, trauma, my own desperate illness, a kaleidoscope of incubators, tubes, machines that bleep, and then terrifyingly stop bleeping, the whole world focussed onto the tiniest scrap of humanity willing it simply to breath, to grow, to survive.
There is no magical moment of 'falling in love' with your baby, no 'bonding' no excited phone calls telling the good news. Simply a gut wrenching fierce protective instinct, which physically takes over but which is helpless in the face of the dangers which beset your child. The miracle of new life is delayed, and only observed really in retrospect, at twelve weeks finally getting a smile, at six months marvelling that the scrap of humanity of just a few short weeks ago is scoffing weetabix and giggling. The one year old who walks, and starts to talk. How did we get here? From there? Blood, sweat and a lot of tears. And the humbling knowledge that we are the lucky ones, my child made it. I made it.
I think what Ruth captured there was summarised in one line, ‘Simply a gut wrenching fierce protective instinct, which physically takes over but which is helpless in the face of the dangers which beset your child.’ When God looks upon us, at the mess we make of our lives, of the lives of others and of the world, I believe God feels that kind of motherly protectiveness.
I remember once hearing someone say that they imagined that God perhaps looked at humanity and wondered if it had all been worth it. I no longer believe that can possibly be the case. If you mothers think of your own children and the mistakes they’ve made, never once will you have wondered if it was worth it. Instead you go on feeling fiercely protective of them whatever decisions they make
You may also feel powerless, knowing that they have to grow up, make their own decisions and become adults in their own right, but that never takes away the lioness instinct from you. And that, I believe, is God’s nature that you’re feeling. God feels fiercely protective of us. Too often we get caught up in the male dominated imagery of having to live up to our Father’s expectations, but Motherhood doesn’t work like that. A good mother will lay down her life for her children.
And doesn’t that sound familiar? Doesn’t that sound similar to the words of Jesus about greater love has no one than to lay down their life for those they love? Which segues neatly into what flows out of these ideas of the Motherhood of God when we look at the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Here there is again talk of birth, a birth from above, a new birth, a birth of the Spirit.
We cannot surely get much more feminine in our imagery of God than Jesus gets here. We must be born of the Holy Spirit as well as born of our earthly mothers. God must give birth to us. We must submit to being born a second time, born of God who is also our Mother, and who must be our Mother because if not, how else could God give birth to us?
But there is here a responsibility for us, for we who have already been born from above. As Jesus said to Nicodemus there is a need for people to be born a second time and being born is rarely a solitary activity. There are very few mothers who go it alone, and so there are very few children born who did not arrive with the help of a midwife.
So it is for people being born from above of the Spirit. There are very few who meet God like this on their own. Most people meet God through the help of someone else showing the way and enabling the birth to take place. And that means that as well as recognising the feminine imagery of God, so we need also to recognise the responsibilities that we all carry to be midwives of these new births. That is what witnessing to what we believe is ultimately about, being a good midwife.
And a good midwife is very caring for the child about to be born and knows not to hurry the process, but simply to be there with encouragement, advice and love. May that be the model that we base our lives on as Christians, as people who love with the love of God, both masculine and feminine, and are always on hand to help a new child to be born from God who is also our Mother. Amen